FAR-REACHING reforms of Polish education, introduced this year, will be judged on their success in reducing the gap between urban and rural children.
Poland has rushed to rebuild its entire education system in a short time, including issuing a new set of textbooks for every student. But the reforms could founder as a result of cash shortages that mean large numbers of rural children are not actually in school.
The changes, affecting all young people from infants through to postgraduates, are being watched by other former Soviet-bloc countries. The new, more decentralised system is based on acquiring skills, and replaces the old centralised, knowledge-based system.
"There has been a dramatic increase in access to secondary and higher education over the past decade in Poland, the most dramatic increase of all countries in Eastern Europe," says Albert Motivans, a specialist on Eastern Europe who works for the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
"The question is, however, whether children in rural areas will have access to the schools."
The government believes that increased participation in education in the countryside is a key to reducing rural poverty.
Some 38 per cent of Poland's population lives in rural areas. According to Miroslaw Handke, the education minister, who addressed a UNESCO conference in Warsaw last month, only about half of adults in rural areas had completed primary school. A mere 15 per cent went on to finish thei secondary studies compared to 35 per cent of urban adults. Similarly 2 per cent of rural adults had been to university compared to 10 per cent in towns.
Ironically, the decentralisation of education, which puts responsibility for schools in the hands of local communes, has worked against rural areas.
According to Mr Handke, these impoverished communes have been saving money by spending less on nursery schools. They have increased fees for parents, cut back on opening hours or simply closed the schools down.
The government has now realised that it needs to force local authorities to ensure universal access to pre-school education and the poorest communes may be given extra money for their nursery schools, according to Mr Handke.
Primary and secondary schools are also in a critical situation. Last year, 70 were closed. Another 400 are at risk as local councils are being forced to take on building and maintenance expenses.
"In a decentralised education system, a region simply cannot afford to finance all the establishments under its jurisdiction," says a recent UNESCO report.
"Unfortunately, this kind of school is no longer profitable," says Marzena Sobkiewicz, a teacher in the village of Kruszow whose primary school faces closure with the loss of 10 teaching jobs. Parents have opposed the decision.
Communes and rural parents say the education minister broke a promise to help children get to school as government funds do not cover transport costs.